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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                        9?
"No use apologising now," growled Yura, ashamed that
it had not been he, but the girl from the meteorological
station, who had dashed to protect his friend.
Grumbling, he shook the sand from his overalls,
scratched the back of his head and looked wonderingly
at the jagged stump of the beheaded birch-tree, from the
trunk of which the transparent sap was oozing in profu-
sion. This sap of the wounded tree, glistening in the sun,
trickled down the mossy bark and dripped to the ground,
clear and transparent, like tears.
"Look! The tree is crying!" said Lenochka, who even
in the midst of danger did not lose her air of impudent
curiosity.
"So would you cry!'' answered Yura gloomily. "Well,
the show's over. Let's go! I hope the ambulance plane
isn't damaged."
"Spring is here!" said Meresyev, gazing at the mutilated
tree trunk, at the glistening, transparent sap dripping to
the ground, and at the snub-nosed "meteorological
sergeant" in the greatcoat much too large for her, whose
name he did not even know.
As the three of them, Yura in front and the two girls
behind, were carrying him to the plane, winding their way
between the still smoking bomb craters into which the
water from the thawing snow was trickling, Alexei cast
curious side glances at the small, strong hand that
emerged from the coarse cuff of the greatcoat and firmly
grasped the handle of the stretcher. What was the matter
with her? Or did he, in his fright, imagine he heard
those words?
On that day which was portentous for him, Alexei
Meresyev was the witness of another event. The silvery
Red Cross plane and the flight mechanic walking around
it, shaking his head and looking to see whether it had
been damaged by a splinter or a blast, were already in
sight when, one after another, the fighter planes returned
and began to land. They shot over the forest, glided down
without the usual circle, landed, and taxied to their capo-
niers on the edge of the wood.
Soon all was quiet in the sky. The airfield was cleared
and the whir of engines in the woods was silenced. But
men were still standing at the command post and scanning
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